MITCHELL ROBERTS A/K/A JAMES MITCHELL ROBERTS A/K/A MITCHELL JAMES ROBERTS A/K/A MITCHELL J. ROBERTS A/K/A JAMES ROBERTS APPELLANT
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI APPELLEE
OF JUDGMENT: 04/06/2016
JUDGE: HON. LESTER F. WILLIAMSON JR.LAUDERDALE COUNTY CIRCUIT
OF STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER BY: GEORGE T. HOLMES ATTORNEY FOR
OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: BARBARA W. BYRD ATTORNEY FOR
DISTRICT ATTORNEY: BILBO MITCHELL
GRIFFIS, P.J., CARLTON AND GREENLEE, JJ.
Mitchell James Roberts was convicted of aggravated driving
under the influence (DUI) after a jury found that he operated
a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicating
substance, specifically, Xanax, which impaired his ability to
drive, and negligently caused the death of Arnold Altman Jr.
Roberts was sentenced to twenty-five years, with seven years
suspended, leaving eighteen years to serve in the custody of
the Mississippi Department of Corrections, followed by five
years of postrelease supervision. Additionally, Roberts was
ordered to pay all court costs, a $2, 000 fine, and
restitution in the amount of $7, 150. Following the denial of
his posttrial motions, Roberts timely appealed. Upon review,
we find no error and affirm.
On July 13, 2013, around 3:00 p.m., fourteen-year-old Altman
Jr., who was a passenger in his father's automobile, died
when his father's vehicle was struck head-on by a truck
driven by Roberts. The accident occurred on a four-lane
bridge on Highway 19 in Meridian.
At the time of the accident, Altman Jr. and his father were
traveling to the store. As they were driving, a truck, driven
by Roberts and traveling in the opposite direction, crossed
the median-like lane, veered into the Altmans' lane of
traffic, and struck the passenger side of the Altmans'
vehicle head-on, killing Altman Jr. Many witnesses observed
the accident and offered their assistance. Two of the
witnesses, Margaret Davis and Stephanie Ruffin, were nurses
and testified at trial.
Davis testified that she and her husband were traveling on
Highway 19 when Roberts's truck veered toward their
vehicle. Davis commented to her husband that the driver
almost hit them. As her husband continued to drive, Davis
turned around and saw the truck veer into oncoming traffic
and "implode" into the Altmans' vehicle. Davis
and her husband turned around in order to provide assistance.
Davis initially went to Roberts's vehicle and attempted
to give him aid. However, Roberts was incoherent. Davis
stated that Roberts was awake, but out of it and could not
form a sentence.
In an attempt to explain Roberts's behavior following the
accident, defense counsel suggested that Roberts was
suffering from retrograde amnesia. While Davis acknowledged
that retrograde amnesia was common in people involved in
automobile crashes, she did not think Roberts was suffering
from amnesia, but instead thought he appeared to be under the
influence of drugs or alcohol. Davis described Roberts's
face as "diaphoretic, " or sweaty, and his pupils
Ruffin also saw Roberts veer out of his lane of traffic.
Ruffin stated it was not an abrupt move, but instead
described Roberts as "gradually drifting" out of
his lane. Based on Roberts's driving, Ruffin assumed he
was texting and driving. However, Ruffin stated her
assumption changed when she saw the impact.
Ruffin initially went to the Altmans' vehicle and helped
Altman out of the car. However, she noticed Altman Jr. was
not responsive and did not have a pulse. She then went to
Roberts's truck. Ruffin described Roberts as "in and
out" and stated his speech was slurred. When Ruffin
asked Roberts what had happened, Roberts responded that he
had "blacked out" or "blanked out."
Detective Greg Crain of the Meridian Police Department
testified that he was called to the scene of the accident at
approximately 3:30 p.m. After Crain assessed the scene and
took photographs, he went to the hospital, where he
eventually spoke with Roberts. Roberts told Crain that the
last thing he remembered was leaving his friend's house
in Collinsville. Roberts asked Crain how the passenger of his
truck was doing. However, Crain explained to Roberts that he
was the only person in his vehicle. Although Roberts did not
recall what he was doing at his friend's house, he
admitted to Crain that he had consumed two beers prior to the
Crain executed an affidavit and obtained a search warrant in
order for a sample of Roberts's blood and urine to be
seized and tested for the presence of drugs and alcohol. The
samples were collected at 6:35 p.m., over three hours after
the accident occurred.
Kara Jackson, a hospital nurse who treated Roberts in the
emergency room, testified that Roberts arrived at 3:28 p.m.
and was agitated and cursing, but alert, oriented, and able
to follow commands. Jackson described Roberts's eyes as
reactive, equal in size, and small, but not pinpoint.
According to Jackson, Roberts's skin was not diaphoretic
when he arrived at the hospital.
Jackson noted that Roberts was experiencing "amnesia
event retrograde, " since he could not recall any
details of the accident. However, Dr. Lindsey Prewitt, an
internal-medicine doctor, testified that based on her
consultation with Roberts, there was no indication of
retrograde amnesia, and there was nothing in his medical
history to support such a finding. Additionally, Dr. William
Billups III, a surgeon who treated Roberts in the emergency
room, testified that based on his consultation with other
specialists, there was no indication of any underlying
medical problems, including head injury or seizure, which
might have caused or contributed to the accident.
When asked about his medical history, Roberts advised the
hospital staff that he was not taking any medications and was
not being treated for any medical issues. However, the blood
test revealed Roberts had benzodiazepines in his system.
Specifically, the compound identified in his system was
alprazolam, otherwise known as Xanax. Further testing revealed
Roberts had fifty-one nanograms per milliliter of Xanax in
his system. According to expert testimony, this amount of
Xanax is within the therapeutic range. Roberts did not test
positive for alcohol.
Maury Phillips, the State's toxicology expert, testified
that Xanax is usually prescribed to manage anxiety or panic
disorders. Phillips stated that the two most common side
effects of Xanax are drowsiness and light-headedness, but
also include confusion, sweating, slurred speech, pinpoint
pupils, and "syncope, " which "means that you
might faint or black out." Phillips explained that the
effects of and tolerance to Xanax varied from person to
person and were influenced by the duration of use and the
Importantly, Phillips testified that impairment can still
occur within the therapeutic range. He explained that there
was not a direct correlation between driving impairment and
drug concentration "like we have for alcohol to say that
if you're a certain number, you're impaired."
Phillips admittedly did not review Roberts's medical
records and was unable to render an opinion as to whether
Roberts was driving impaired based on the concentration of
Xanax alone, since the amount in his system was within the
therapeutic range. According to Phillips, in order to make an
assessment about drug-induced driving impairment, you must
consider all of the evidence, including the particular events
surrounding the accident, any eyewitness testimony, the
results of the toxicology report, and the individual's
information, such as his medical history, drug tolerance, and
reason for the drug use.
Roberts's information and medical history regarding his
use of Xanax, including the duration of use, the amount
taken, and the reason for use, or whether the medication was
even prescribed, was unknown. However, Phillips stated that
Davis's and Ruffin's observations at the accident
scene, along with the testimony regarding Roberts's
erratic driving, were indicators of impairment.
Dr. Richard Ogletree Jr., an expert in toxicology and
pharmacology, testified on behalf of Roberts. When asked
whether Roberts was impaired, Ogletree, like Phillips, stated
that such a determination required specific clinical
observations in addition to blood-concentration levels.
However, unlike Phillips, Ogletree reviewed Roberts's
medical records and stated there was no evidence of
impairment in the records. Ogletree stated he could not
consider Davis's and Ruffin's observations at the
accident scene, since they were not made under clinical
conditions, nor were they contemporaneously recorded.
Ogletree testified that while fifty-one nanograms of Xanax
per milliliter of blood is in the middle of a therapeutic
range, a person could still be impaired with such a
blood-concentration level. Ogletree agreed that tolerance is
important in determining impairment, but could not state
whether Roberts had built up a tolerance, since he had not
spoken with Roberts or reviewed any medical history or
medical records, other than those related to the accident.
Prior to trial, Roberts moved to suppress the results of the
blood sample seized pursuant to the search warrant obtained
by Crain. Roberts claimed "there was no probable cause
to believe that [he] was operating a motor vehicle under the
influence of drugs and/or alcohol, " and, therefore, no
"substantial credible evidence" existed to support
the issuance of the search warrant. A motion hearing was held
wherein Crain and the municipal court judge who issued the
search warrant testified. The circuit court subsequently
denied the motion to suppress.
Following his conviction, Roberts filed a motion for a
judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a motion for a new
trial, both of which were denied. Roberts now appeals and
argues: (1) the evidence was insufficient to support the
verdict, (2) the verdict was contrary to the overwhelming
weight of the evidence, (3) his confrontation rights were
compromised since the circuit court allowed the technical
reviewer to testify in lieu of the actual crime-lab analyst,
(4) the circuit court erroneously denied his motion to
suppress since there was insufficient ...